Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Winter Father – Andre Dubus

Andre Dubus August 11, 1936 - February 24, 1999

I have to say, after six stories into this collection, I am very happy with the selections Calisher has made. This volume is much more pleasing to read than the previous.

This feeling comes through stronger after reading “The Winter Father”.

I don’t think I have read a story that has brought forth so many emotions in me before.

The strength of this writer is incredible.

This story hit way too close to home for me.

There were scenes in this story that made me feel as if Dubus was following me though my life during the early months of my parents divorce.

It’s a spooky coincidence of timing as well. My parents split up and my father headed north to Philly in the autumn of 1980. Dubus was probably writing this in 1980.

So, I’m going to fully take advantage of this blog now and use it for what I intended.

Release and education.


My father headed up to Philly in the autumn of 1980 – He settled in a quiet suburb.

In Chestnut Hill, he rented in a small one room apartment – with a basement – which he converted into a small living area for my sister and I on our visits.

I remember the first visit to his new home vividly. Unlike in the story, where the father was able to drive and pick the brother and sister up, all within the same general geographic region, my parents lived further apart.

My mother sister and I remained in Norfolk and dad moved to Philly. For the first trip, my parents felt that a short fast visit made by plane would be easiest on us all.

I was eight and my sister was five. We flew alone.

My mother was allowed to walk us onto the plane and sit with us, minutes before take off. Just as in the story, onlookers (other passengers and the stewardesses) were aware of what was going on and that we were the children of divorcees.

We cried a little, and in my mind, somehow, I knew that I had to be a bit stronger for my sister. I choked back tears.

We would land about 50 minutes later in Philly, we were the first off the plane, and our father was at the entrance to the gate to greeting us.

We spent the weekend making and eating food (just as in the story), went to movies (just as in the story) discussing our feelings about the divorce (just as in the story), eating in restaurants where waitresses also knew the situation (just as in the story) and strangely enough, (but on a different visit – we did a lot of sledding) – just as in the story.

When the weekend was over, (I think it was a holiday weekend – something like 4 or 5 days) – dad took us back to the airport and walked us onto the plane. Leaving him was much more emotional.

There was much more crying from both my sister and I – I cried a lot. A “hurt your heart” cry.

Just as in the story, Dad was the “good guy” for the time we spent with him. He didn’t have to discipline us verbally the way married parents did...or our mother did because we lived with her – he took us to fun places, and showed us new and interesting things. He did no wrong that weekend.

I don’t remember the flight home, or mom greeting us at the gate (I’m sure she did). I don’t remember her asking us about our time with Dad, but I’m sure she did.

I do remember going into my room and just staring out the window for a long time – just thinking.

I did a lot of that growing up. Just looking out of the window – in a trance – thinking.

It seems like an odd behavior for a child.

Perhaps not.

The 1980s

So, as the years went by, from age 8 to 18, my dad would make trips up and down Virginia’s Eastern Shore on Rt. 13 to pick my sister and I up, and then to return us home after our visit.

It was about a 5 hour trip for him, and he would leave early in the morning from Philly, and would sleep in his Datsun in front of our house until we woke and I would sneak out to greet him.

He probably only had a couple hours sleep but he was always happy to see us.

He would use our bathroom, drink something, maybe eat something, and we’d be on our way back north.

I became familiar with certain old houses, trees, bends in the road...corn fields along Rt. 13.

The trips north were always exciting, and the trips back down south as you rightly assume were depressing.

On the return trips, we’d hit the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and usually start crying. At that point we’d only have about an hour left with dad.

Quick back and forth’s about “feelings” and “thoughts” would be exchanged.

-Conversations through the windshield- just as Dubus wrote.

Later that night, after the drop off, I’d be back at home again staring out my window.


My father still lives in the Philadelphia region.

He and I decided to meet in Salisbury Maryland, at a hotel to “sort a few things out”.

Salisbury is the half way point for both of us on Rt. 13.

It was a cold February.

There were some signs that his memory was starting to slip a bit, and we (M and I) realized that if there was going to be any sort of meaningful discussion that it would have to be done soon.

We hadn’t confronted him yet about his memory...and he didn’t see it in himself yet.

After dinner in Ocean City, we returned back to the hotel (a Days Inn I believe) around 11.

Several bottles of Scotch were pulled from his trunk as I think we both knew that we need some defense against what was about to hit us emotionally as well as something to loosen up his responses and something to allow me to be bolder in my interrogation of him.

So, for about 3 hours, I laid into him about the divorce.

Why did it happen?

What were they thinking?

How did he feel?

How did mom feel?




We both cried.

It was necessary though – and I had a lot of questions answered.

We parted early Sunday morning – a bit hung-over from all the emotions – the Scotch didn’t dent either of us – we were seasoned drinkers then.

We agreed that meetings like this needed to happen more often. We quickly decided that we would meet again in several months for another father/son weekend.

We never did.


My father’s mind today isn’t what it was back in 2004.

He has trouble remembering events or conversations that occurred 10 minutes ago.

I mistakenly fell under the assumption that the “divorce” discussions were over.

My father has decided that since he is retired, he needs to do some cleaning. Last year on a trip up to visit him; he passed along a large box containing all of my sister’s and my artwork from our childhood.

He did a good thing as a father and kept it all.

He now felt that it would be best if he gave it to us for safekeeping.

Contained in that box of artwork were letters from my sister and I to our father after the divorce.

There were also letters from my mother to him after the divorce.

I don’t think I made it though 2 letters.

Today, those letters are hidden in our apartment. I asked M to hide them from me.

She asked if she could read them and I allowed her to.

After she read them, she cried and held me. She asked how we were able to turn out “normal”.

She was at a loss for words, for all of the raw emotion put forth in those letters by two young children who missed their father – and by a mother/wife that was in mourning for her failed marriage.

I have no idea if those letters were placed in that box intentionally or not. I don’t know if I’ll ever read those letters.

3 weeks ago-

Rt. 13 isn’t what it was back in the 1980s. I still recognize bends in the road, certain trees, broken down houses.

A majority of the trip is spent in silence. M enjoys sleeping on long car trips and the silence is welcome as I stare out of the windshield having conversations with myself.

The conversations is about my future as a husband and maybe someday, as a father.

I promise to myself never to do what my parents did. I promise to myself never to leave my wife – and never to leave my children.

I whisper those promises to M as she sleeps and I choke back tears on Rt. 13 as we travel north.

I’ll never be a Winter Father.

1 comment:

  1. lovely. I too think Dubus is an amazing writer. I'm reading his son's book, Townie. I did not appreciate his son's success because II never really achieved that. But after reading his book about his childhood, how his dad left he and his family behind, I have to say, I feel differently about him.